Despite work suspensions, the Senate and the House of Representatives called for special sessions last March 23 to officially declare a national emergency and grant President Rodrigo Duterte “powers necessary and proper” to deal with the increasing damage caused by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak.
Under Article VI, Section 23 (2) of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, Congress can allow the President to use such powers in the event that a national emergency arises. Seeing it as an option, senators and representatives made haste to pass Senate Bill (SB) No. 1418 and its counterpart House Bill (HB) No. 6616—key pieces of legislation intended to bolster the government’s response to the pandemic. Despite passing the third reading in record time, the original bills did not pass without scrutiny and several revisions.
Drafts at a glance
One of the original objectives of the special session was to realign funds to fight the outbreak. Senate President Vicente Sotto III said last March 21 that up to P200-billion might be diverted to prop up the response effort. The bills presented to both chambers also insisted for the immediate provision of essential supplies to those affected by the Enhanced Community Quarantine, especially indigent Filipinos and their families.
In the face of “clearly significant” costs, Sen. Pia Cayetano reported that the government has funds that are readily available. “What we do not have is the flexibility to use the available cash to beat this virus,” she stated. In response, the HB No. 6616 and the original SB called for giving the President authority to reallocate the national budget.
Other provisions of the original HB draft authorized the President to “temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately-owned public utility or business affected with public interest.” Such would also include telecommunications or media companies, electric company Meralco, and water companies Maynilad and Manila Water.
Similarly, the original unnumbered draft of what would become SB No. 1418 mentioned “emergency powers” that would be given to the President. Its counterpart in the House of Representatives also detailed “emergency powers” to be used by the chief executive.
However, both HB No. 6616 and SB No. 1418 underwent several revisions that would limit the President’s power.
Among the changes was HB No. 6616’s provision calling for the transfer of funds. Critics in the House of Representatives, including Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate, attacked the provision. Zarate cited Article 6, Section 25 of the 1987 Constitution, which barred any law “authorizing any transfer” of funds in the annual national budget or General Appropriations Act.
The provisions were nevertheless amended to specify such limitations in reallocating the fixed funds of the 2019 and 2020 budgets and prioritizing the augmentation of the Department of Health’s operational budget of government hospitals, among others.
The provisions that would allow the government takeover of privately-owned utilities or businesses were also struck down in both initial Senate and House versions of the bill. Instead, specifics were set in Section 4 of both bills, explaining that establishment operations will be redirected mainly to serve as centers for medical relief. The bills also promise “reasonable compensation” to owners of private establishments, should damages be incurred.
Additionally, the amended bills’ Section 4 detailed that medical supplies will receive procurement priority, with later revisions adding that allocation of these supplies would be prioritized for institutions housing COVID-19 patients. Notably, the SB was also revised further to demand that the government provide hazard pay for health workers in the frontline.
Keeping in line
To ensure that everybody—including the President—would abide by the proposed laws, penalties were set for violators. The penalties included a two-month prison sentence or a fine ranging from P10,000 to P1-million. Additionally, the court has the option to serve both possibilities “without prejudice to prosecution under other applicable laws with heavier penalties”.
The bills detailed separate penalties for offending corporations or other juridical persons; their penalty shall be decided upon the President or penalty shall instead be imposed upon the company’s president or managing partners. Foreigners, on the other hand, will be “deported without further proceedings”, while public and private employees would be disqualified from office.
The President himself will be required to make a weekly report—originally monthly—to be submitted to Congress. This report would detail all activities made, including funds used. A four-member oversight committee is tasked to evaluate the report.
Despite contentions, both measures were passed in their respective chambers. The House of Representatives voted 284-9-0 on HB No. 6616, while the Senate voted 12-0 on SB No. 1418.
Although legislators initially hoped to finish the bills before midnight, Senate proceedings lapsed into the early morning of March 24 as senators finished the third reading of SB No. 1418 at around 1 am. The House of Representatives chose to adopt the Senate’s version of the bill, now called the Bayanihan To Heal As One Act.
The special powers granted to the President is limited to three months, unless extended by Congress. Duterte signed the bill into law almost an entire day later in the early morning of March 25.